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AIDS and Its Metaphors

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Considers the metaphors with which acquired immune deficiency syndrome is cloaked, the presentation of the illness as a plague, and its bearing on the way society views disease, sexuality, and catastrophe

96 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1989

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About the author

Susan Sontag

243 books3,958 followers
Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford.

Her books include four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, and In America; a collection of short stories, I, etcetera; several plays, including Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea; and nine works of nonfiction, starting with Against Interpretation and including On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, Where the Stress Falls, Regarding the Pain of Others, and At the Same Time. In 1982, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published A Susan Sontag Reader.

Ms. Sontag wrote and directed four feature-length films: Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971), both in Sweden; Promised Lands (1974), made in Israel during the war of October 1973; and Unguided Tour (1983), from her short story of the same name, made in Italy. Her play Alice in Bed has had productions in the United States, Mexico, Germany, and Holland. Another play, Lady from the Sea, has been produced in Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Korea.

Ms. Sontag also directed plays in the United States and Europe, including a staging of Beckett's Waiting for Godot in the summer of 1993 in besieged Sarajevo, where she spent much of the time between early 1993 and 1996 and was made an honorary citizen of the city.

A human rights activist for more than two decades, Ms. Sontag served from 1987 to 1989 as president of the American Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization dedicated to freedom of expression and the advancement of literature, from which platform she led a number of campaigns on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers.

Her stories and essays appeared in newspapers, magazines, and literary publications all over the world, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Art in America, Antaeus, Parnassus, The Threepenny Review, The Nation, and Granta. Her books have been translated into thirty-two languages.

Among Ms. Sontag's many honors are the 2003 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the 2003 Prince of Asturias Prize, the 2001 Jerusalem Prize, the National Book Award for In America (2000), and the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography (1978). In 1992 she received the Malaparte Prize in Italy, and in 1999 she was named a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government (she had been named an Officier in the same order in 1984). Between 1990 and 1995 she was a MacArthur Fellow.

Ms. Sontag died in New York City on December 28, 2004.

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Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
April 22, 2019
A thought-provoking follow-up to Illness as Metaphor, AIDS and Its Metaphors examines the dehumanizing ways American society discusses and treats those living with illness. The work starts off by recapitulating the major ideas of its predecessor, but it quickly shifts directions. Across eight succinct sections Sontag convincingly argues that the central metaphor associated with AIDS is that of the plague. Paying close attention to the racism, homophobia, and classism that stigmatize the syndrome, she considers the ways in which AIDS displaced cancer as Western civilization’s most feared illness, and she critiques politicians and pundits’ claim that AIDS is a kind of punishment for a society or subculture too sexually permissive. Nearly every page is filled with fascinating insight, and the book invites rereading.
Profile Image for Steven R. Kraaijeveld.
502 reviews1,765 followers
February 15, 2016
In AIDS and Its Metaphors, Sontag clarifies and defends the position she took ten years earlier in Illness as Metaphor, and extends some of her thoughts on disease metaphors to what is now – in 1988 – the new, stigmatized, apocalyptic disease: AIDS. Compared to her previous work, this was, to me, less coherent and incisive, although it still offer much to consider.

The story of AIDS, which was highly relevant, of course, when Sontag was writing, is now more distant as AIDS has become – at least in the West – a chronic (‘manageable’) illness which does not kill in the way it did in the 1980s. Sontag discusses AIDS in part because it has replaced, at that time, cancer as the most ruthless disease in people’s minds. I could not help think of the episode of South Park, Tonsil Trouble (airing March 12, 2008), in which Eric Cartman is infected with AIDS and becomes furious when people do not take it seriously. At some point in the episode, when Eric tells a steward at the airport that he has AIDS (to get on a flight for free), the man responds: "AIDS? Wow, that's really… retro." One of the points of the episode is that AIDS has been replaced by cancer as – once again – the primary and most dreaded disease in the West (receiving the most attention, compassion, funding, etc.).

The AIDS discussion therefore, while interesting, did not have the same impact or immediacy, at least to me, as cancer had in Illness as Metaphor, nor were Sontag's musings as focused as before. Yet it was still fascinating, and not just as a historical document of early responses to AIDS. Contributing to this is probably the fact that Sontag, every now and then, drops some serious truth, which is always refreshing. An example:
"(Part of the self-definition of Europe and the Neo-European countries is that it, the first world, is where major calamities are history-making, transformative, while in poor, African or Asian countries they are part of a cycle, and therefore something like an aspect of nature.)"
I also could not help but think of the recent Ebola scare, and how that was treated by the media, health professionals, and the public - surprisingly similar, in fact, to the way in which Sontag portrays early responses to the AIDS epidemic. Or perhaps it is not that surprising after all, for, as Sontag points out, there is high historical congruency in reactions to diseases that have the potential to spread widely and are not only lethal, but also disfiguring and dehumanizing.
Profile Image for Julia.
495 reviews
September 2, 2016
returned home to los angeles this summer, ignored (and continue to ignore) my obligations, and watched (the far too white, male [and also i guess biomedically focused but that at least felt like a deserved choice re: presenting one of many worthy AIDS narratives in the world, as long as it's consciously among a worthy plurality]) how to survive a plague one night. the next night, watched united in anger: a history of ACT UP. read through some transcripts of ACT UP oral histories. the next night, watched paris is burning. read through some sarah schulman writing and criticism. went to my favorite first used bookshop, bought cheap hardcovers of this and on photography though what i really want are old non-loathsome paperback editions of under the sign of saturn and i etcetera and maybe styles of radical will...but the covers were nice and i remembered from her journals, from one of her lists, that sontag preferred hardbacks to paperbacks, so i thought i would give her this. i like small insignificant honors in the way that i feel often attacked by small petty indignities. i mean, not that many things happen in life that are big. (things that are big: the iliad; euripides, greek tragedy, and perhaps all theatre as explained by anne carson; the AIDS crisis. cf. sarah schulman's afterword to her novel empathy, in which she arrogantly but possibly truthfully classifies herself as an exceptional person, someone willing to do and grapple with definite, risk-worthy actions. don't know her well enough to know if the arrogance is deserved but i kind of like it anyway, i like arrogance in a woman—i love susan sontag because she is arrogant and because i think her arrogance is entirely deserved.)
i'm really not sure why i've been ingesting so much AIDS and queer, AIDS-adjacent media lately, beyond what i mentioned above (should at least mention the robert giard photography collection of lgbt writers on nypl, which is so sad in its beautiful anonymous masses and somehow made more sad by the frequent points of recognition), but it's irritating in that i feel very primed, a year too late, for a class i took last fall quarter on post-stonewall american queer artistic production, taught by a Very Famous prof who's so fantastic she sort of unintentionally stamped out discussion rather than fostered it—why talk when she could talk instead? this was just my perception; learned last year also that one's perception of a class is not always the common one. i also thought and still believe i was fantastically mediocre in that course, but among the fellow-students i most respected in that classroom, one wanted to date me and the other wanted to help get me an internship. what i'm saying is that second year was weird and pedagogy is hard. every quarter, or almost every quarter, sometimes in conjunction with my quarterly academic crises, sometimes not, i get anxious about not investing enough in my classes and not taking advantage of all my university has to offer me. was texting this to a friend yesterday—and what a joy it was to text so lengthily and indulgently; a practice of my high school years that i should get into again—when i realized a better formulation to get anxious about, if anxiety is going to be unavoidable (will i take an interdisciplinary course in the spring simply titled "anxiety"? o, probably), is taking advantage of all my teachers and students have to offer me. and to offer in return. how to do that? how to become enveloped joyfully in the work without getting caught up in that outer layer of constantly bemoaning and bewailing The Work? (a common practice at my university, my work-laden image-conscious university, one i understand but perhaps ultimately find insidious...) my model, i realize, is susan sontag, of course it's susan sontag. i think about the fact that she turned her cancer into work, into illness as metaphor. that she was enveloped in the work, that it didn't end, that it led to aids and its metaphors. maybe when i read the weather, that lisa robertson book, i noted my practice of returning to the same books of poetry when i visit the co-op; i neglected to mention that i return also, often, to wayne koestenbaum's book of essays my 1980s, and specifically to his essay "susan sontag: cosmophage," which i must have read there at least three times now. caricature that i always am, i nearly tweeted a ranked list of my favorite gossipy sontag tell-alls a few days ago (terry castle's LRB essay "desperately seeking susan" is at the top, for, uh, what it's worth), but partly did not because it's not a category that "cosmophage" fits into. cosmophage reads like an essay whose writing made koestenbaum happy and joyful and full, and it makes me happy and joyful, it primes me for fullness, to work towards fulfillment, or towards a state in which one often strives after fulfillment because one is never empty, one must eat more. a cosmophage. she eats the world, she is arrogant, these are different phrases meaning the same thing. she is unashamed to know and to want. to revel in the work those verbs require. in his preface to sontag's second volume of journals, david rieff is very gloomy about his mother, says she was likely never very happy, or at least not consistently. i don't pretend to know her better than her son, obviously, and the state of being he describes feels right, but it also doesn't grasp the joy (always, always using zadie smith's all-encompassing definition of joy) to be had in, well, constant grasping. tirelessness.
to tie some further loose strings. in "cosmophage" koestenbaum asks, to those grumblers, did susan sontag need to come out? this woman who introduced camp to the masses from the front lines of its productions, who writes as the protagonist in her first novel "I am a homosexual"? schulman sighs that the best-known critical work on AIDS is AIDS and Its Metaphors, written by a woman who won't come out, who pretends to some neutral impartial viewpoint as a woman who to the wider public has not come out; sighs also that at a certain point in the nineties the publishing industry would consider sontag-who-hasn't-come-out as the best & best-known lesbian writer. not sure what she thinks of "the way we live now" (the first sontag work i read, which i read before i knew who she was).
i like schulman for her bluntness, so she fails more often for me. given her criticisms of fiction written by lgbt writers cordoned off as lgbt fiction you think she might be more expansive here. koestenbaum on this matter was deeply comforting. another question might be, did the woman who introduced camp to the masses and then in another age wrote AIDS and its metaphors need to come out, or what do you make of this woman. i love the impartiality of AIDS and Its Metaphors, its secret intimacy: i don't need to say why this matters to me. if you're reading this maybe you also read my short story in the new yorker a few years ago. maybe you also read against interpretation, maybe you also read on camp. maybe you also read illness as metaphor, which nowhere hints at my own cancer. —i love that she doesn't want to, doesn't need to contextualize, that not everything needs the personal context. the work stands on its own. or, she is also the work. if you excuse me, i must go off into work.
Profile Image for Arlie.
40 reviews7 followers
December 1, 2014
I'm becoming obsessed with Sontag at the moment, she's so smart and well read and such a good writer. She wrote this over ten years after Illness as Metaphor and it's pretty amazing to read her reflections and extensions on that. I love reading things like this when people return to their work after a long break. This is IMO even better than Illness as metaphor, which was about TB's metaphors for overconsumption and giving too much license to the "passions", and cancer's association with repressions, modernity and its evils. HIV and its Metaphors goes more into associations of particular diseases, especially sexually transmitted ones, with wilfulness, imprudence, immorality and punishment. It's so readable, starting by discussing the metaphorisation of AIDS and syphilis as being about contamination and invasion, which easily comes to be about nationalism, war and foreignness;

"No, it is not desirable for medicine, any more than for war, to be "total." Neither is the crisis created by AIDS a "total' anything. We are not being invaded. The body is not a battlefield. The ill are neither un-avoidable casualties nor the enemy. We-medicine, society-are not authorized to fight back by any means whatever."

The end is especially interesting because she talks a lot about the linking of diseases with Apocalypse that probably really strongly came about in pop culture with AIDS and continues with Ebola and various Influenza and anthrax cultural panics. I also loved some of the comments about syphilis and people who put toilet paper down between their own butt and the toilet seat in public toilets and anti-AIDS campaigns in the states in the 80's which stated that every time you have sex you are not only having sex with one person, but every person they have ever slept with (which was something I was also told in high school sex ed in 2006).
Profile Image for J.
730 reviews455 followers
April 28, 2014
While I love the premise of this (trying to show how public perception of diseases morphed from the cancer scare of the 60-70's into the AIDS crisis of the 80's), I found the first part of this to be fairly dated. Obviously this was published at a time when even managing HIV was essentially a non-possibility. Our understanding of and ability to manage HIV has grown exponentially in the subsequent decades (thank you, medical science), even if many of the attitudes of shame and ignorance around it remain. But that's also what makes this piece so fascinating, it is a relic of a time when there seemed to be quite literally no hope in stopping or even just managing the spread of HIV.

Sontag is amazingly effective when she digs deep into the broader cultural fears that we projected onto this illness, and instead of merely setting up a bunch of cheap Reagan-era straw men to attack (Jesse Helms, etc), she delves deeply into the history of why we fear of mass illnesses, about our fundamental mistrust, of the foreign, the different (AIDS at the time primarily effected Homosexuals and Africans, two groups laden with socio-political misunderstanding), and how we co-opt certain types of rhetoric, whether, religious (AIDS, like syphilis before it, is a divine judgement) or military (AIDS is an enemy to be guarded against and attacked). In order to put something new and terrifying whose parameters at the time where very poorly understood into a comprehensible context.
Profile Image for Andrea Chang.
19 reviews2 followers
June 27, 2023
thought provoking to see a dated critique on a disease that was terrifying and poorly understood at the time of writing. It definitely felt obvious that AIDS no longer holds the same stigma Sontag was critiquing, so the entire essay in 2023 is an exercise in trying to understand what the climate around AIDS was like now that the public stigma has largely dissolved. even though the widespread public fear (read:white straight peoples fear) of AIDS are no longer prominent, sontag's intellectualization of fear rings true.

fear of other's identities starts with dehumanization- diseases that warp an individual's appearance also warp their perception. And perception of inevitable death of a positive HIV test in the 80s gave patients a new identity in a way other sicknesses didn't, and since they were already dead in the public eye, I guess why spend the attention to try to save them? Nevermind the homophobic accusations that HIV+ patients contracted the disease because of a supposed moral failing to abstain from sexual indulgence, and Reagan-era strawmen who perpetuated these beliefs. HIV+ patients were already seen as worthy of death, justifying straight white people's paranoia. same shit happening now with lgbtq+ attacks in state legislatures. it was always the same argument, homophobia is just out of fashion now, so lawmakers pick an easier target.
Profile Image for Adeline.
22 reviews
January 7, 2023
Sontag engages disease and its metaphors in this economical book. The metaphors span from political to literary, and their breadth is impressive considering the work’s brevity. Sontag openly admits though that this book is made to only tear down present ideas of disease. By the conclusion of the book, she identifies issues with warlike metaphors of disease but no new conceptions are proposed, leaving a gap in the execution of the work. Without replacements for current models of thought, the likelihood that these problematic metaphors will continue to be relied upon is high. Decades after the book’s release, metaphors of disease and war are present still. There is room here for an updated version by a public scholar, hopefully addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Profile Image for Jane Wiewora.
99 reviews
November 16, 2022
Interesting, but dated since it was written long before antiretroviral therapy and the Covid-19 epidemic.
August 20, 2018
Sontag challenges the imagery of warfare as applied to medicine and explains that this long-standing metaphor puts the patient at risk of being seen as an 'unavoidable casualty [or] the enemy.' She confronts the apocalyptic fears and uncertainties surrounding the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. Despite being written in the pre-ART era, this essay offers poignant and fresh insights into societal and medical responses to emerging 'plagues.'
Profile Image for Ned Rifle.
36 reviews33 followers
December 26, 2012
Always nice to hear someone taking words seriously for a good length of time, will have to reread after having read Illness and its Metaphors.
Profile Image for Adakhc.
142 reviews5 followers
May 2, 2018
I finally got to read this book! I'm a fan of Sontag, and had to see what she was saying about HIV / AIDS in 1988, five years or so before ART was invented and changed the progression of the virus for those who could afford this.
This is a great follow up to Illness as Metaphor.
The book had more of a focus on linguistic discourses around HIV and AIDS than I was expecting, and less of a focus on the state's use of the threat of HIV / AIDS as a method of increasing social control / adding to the of oppression of minorities.
A great read.
Profile Image for Michael Palkowski.
Author 2 books39 followers
March 27, 2012
Give it back to the war marker.

A brilliant essay unhinging the metaphoric language which constitutes our understanding of not only AIDS but diseases in general. Her work is fantastic at showcasing the power of language and how ideas despite their non valid, tenuous associations and dis proven quality retain for generations stigmatizing people and thus their willingness sometimes to get effective treatment due to potential "social" deaths which precede the literal physical one. Analyzing the militaristic metaphoric jargon, plague epidemic connotations and political considerations, Sontag delineates how certain illnesses become imbued with specific notions depending on the societal construction that exists at the time. For example, it's difficult to categorize all hemophilia sufferers as constituting a distinctive set of beliefs or practices but since AIDS at the time was considered a concomitant side effect of licentious behavior there was a conflationary understanding of the disease as being something which constituted deviancy and therefore a just deserts, it also effectively individualizes the disease and makes it difficult to garner any sort of solidarity with any sort of wider community or network of sufferers which might help in the recovery progress. This raises numerous ontological issues since it effectively confirmed an identity whilst simultaneously draining one. People who were confirmed to have AIDS immediately became tinged with the societal construction of deviancy and of unregulated non moral actions which destroyed the previous personality which existed as they became known merely as the patient. This sort of thinking is pre-modern but was something which constituted numerous illnesses, as Sontag describes. There is great analysis of the miasmic thesis that still permeates today. The "aristocracy of face" created an interesting factor in how we viewed diseases, in we tended to villify and fear those debilitating illnesses which removed the humanity from us. She makes a great point in stating that diseases which are epidemic in it's reach or potential, invariably is presented as something 'other' and foreign (On page 47/48 she describes how syphilis was "French Pox" to the English, "Chinese Disease" to the Japanese and "Germanicus" to the French) This sort of primitive distance of illness is seriously counter productive as it presents the civilized world in a dichotomy of ill free prosperity juxtaposed with barbaric under-currents who are bastions of disease. Consequently AIDS was no different, presented as an infestation of the third world, interestingly enough ignoring perhaps the more pertinent narrative concerning the spread of disease more generally through colonizing Europeans which would have added to the obliteration of indigenous populations and cultures, again something that Sontag notes brilliantly and succinctly.

This narrative leads us to the use of AIDS as a metaphoric tool and thus in constructing the illness as a homosexual disease. On page 61 Sontag remarks that the disease was actually predominately heterosexual in it's initial epidemic form, which would be a profound revelation to those who view it otherwise. Pat Buchanan of course makes an appearance as does Jerry Falwell both of whom one could count on to provide quotable stupidity and dimness for the waiting literary and cultural critic. I suppose if people like this were not festering in their own xenophobic bellicosity we wouldn't have such fantastic essays attacking them. It's a shame however we have a proliferous amounts of people willing to use other people's misfortune for their own benefits, religion or political; Thus the use of the term "Mental AIDS" to describe striking students. A fantastic read.
Profile Image for Brandon.
70 reviews4 followers
October 16, 2016
This is the first book I've read of Sontag's. She's a very good writer, even if, like the rest of much critical theory, plays fast and loose with the proofs—there's a reason Lakoff's Metaphors We Live By is not a touchstone of modern linguistics—the arguments remain, just the same, compelling. She attempts a kind of genealogy (though an overwhelmingly linguistic and discursive one) of the ways in which the language of illness has been mobilized to determine its treatment and reception. It is a worthwhile book, and due to its length and the quality of its prose, an easy one.
Profile Image for Kaethe.
6,452 reviews473 followers
July 8, 2014
Probably this deserves more credit, but I'm so tired of the illness as metaphor concept, I'm willing to low-ball the messenger.
53 reviews19 followers
December 25, 2020
Reactions to the AIDS epidemic are combed by Susan Sontag here to point out how AIDS and its particular rhetoric both prefigure and reflect our economic, social, and medical life. For example, reactions to AIDS reveal our global connectedness just like the effects of "industrial pollution and the new system of global financial markets":

the AIDS crisis is evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide. (92)

It makes a difference to imagine illnesses as antagonistic viral agents that are looking to expose us or to conceive it as a natural byproduct of an increasingly global connectivity. Softening national borders for global trade and airports make us world travellers and neighbours. In that way, illnesses flag global interdependencies and urge ecological imaginaries with others, no matter that these connections all begin unwilled. Our susceptibility inform the reading of our culture, and we are guided by Sontag to see a certain desire in our personal life:

There is a broad tendency in our culture, an end-of-an-era feeling, that AIDS is reinforcing; an exhaustion, for many, of purely secular ideals—ideals that seemed to encourage libertinism or at least not provide any coherent inhibition against it—in which the response to AIDS finds its place. The behaviour AIDS is stimulating is part of a larger grateful return to what is perceived as "conventions," like the return to figure and landscape, tonality and melody, plot and character, and other much vaunted repudiations fo difficult modernism in the arts. (78)

Perhaps the AIDS catastrophe grafted on the era of "enlightened modernity" and "sexual realism", : as impulse and rebellion wore out, voluntary limits that individuals applied in the name of health began to wane—emblematic in watching one's appetites or not letting oneself go during the holidays when it comes to diet (78). This pre-adapted the individual and welcomed a new consciousness in cultural and sexual life. Making the connection between AIDS responses and the intensifying social ideals of 1970s bringing back "tonal music, Bouguereau, a career in investment banking, and church weddings" is a unique Sontag insight generated from rhetorical analysis of illnesses as a tracing of cultural confluences (79).

She also postulates the apocalyptic inflections with AIDS that makes it an effective mass controlling paradigm in the book's final pages:

It is also typical of a modern society that the demand for mobilization be kept very general and the reality of the response fall well short of what seems to be demanded to meet the challenge of the nation-endangering menace. This sort of rhetoric has a life of its own: it serves some purpose if it simply keeps in circulation an ideal of unifying communal practice that is precisely contradicted by the pursuit of accumulation and isolating entertainments enjoined on the citizens of a modern mass society. (85)

Making "Apocalypse Now" into "Apocalypse From Now On" through fear for the future prepares our current reality and humanity into a battleground calls life to be deployed into a military investment (88, 93). By painfully extracting how AIDS metaphors develop within the social environments we live in, Sontag's concerns for our language—signifiers and signified—figure alternate ways of living and healing.
Profile Image for Jim.
2,636 reviews135 followers
January 4, 2023
I cannot doubt Sontag's intellectual rigour, but that doesn't mean I enjoy her writing or her tone, even being a huge lover of intellectuals. This book reads less like an essay and more like a newspaper article of some length (yes, I am that old!) or a 'Long Read' in something like Time magazine, or maybe The New Yorker. Yes, it is that dated, and that thinly presented. And while it is intriguing to compare the extreme fear of AIDS at the time this was written with the significantly less drastic reality of its global death toll in 2023 and then try to make some qualitative judgments about something, or many things, the book isn't trying to do that, obviously, so I can hardly dismiss it for that failing. But I can find it uninteresting and rather dry, but I tend to find much of Sontag's works to be quite lacking affect. She seems to write from this near-omniscient narrator position, as if she is not actually one of us humans, but merely a being observing, commentating, and judging us. One might argue that is the definition of a intellectual, but I prefer a bit more humanity than she delivers. Sontag gives us some gems here and there, I especially like her comments about the 'Apocalypse From Now On', and some of her too-brief discussions of AIDS as it related to self-policing of the body, and the body politic. Still, too much of the writing just dropped dates and names and quotations without any deep dives into how they are related to how humans were dealing with AIDS in its early, (arguably more) frightening years. A bit much on her opinions about cancer, brought over in some form from her essay 'Illness as Metaphor', which were less effective relative to AIDS than I expected, maybe due to their personal nature? An interesting book, but severely lacking in depth or analysis, more of a slightly-academic time capsule than a truly insightful piece of work.
655 reviews10 followers
July 18, 2019
Metaphor, Aristotle wrote, "consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else." p. 93
It seems that societies need to have one illness which becomes identified with evil, and attaches blame to its "victims." but it is hard to be obsessed with more than one. p. 104
. . . the need to make a dreaded disease foreign. p 135
the very concept of wrong, which is archaically identical with the non-us, the alien.p. 136
. . . xenophobic propaganda has always depicted immigrants as bearers of disease. * * *
. . fomenting fear of this new alien peril. p. 150
variations AIDS-ish. . . . Mental AIDS * * *
Reagan I didn't have cancer. I had something inside of me that had cancer in it and it was removed. p. 154
fn. Aids cannot be stopped in any country unless it is stopped in all countries. p. 179
we dump our wastes on poorer country or countries or the ocean.
Profile Image for David Murray.
72 reviews
May 24, 2022
'AIDS and Its Metaphors' is more a prologue for Sontag's previous work, 'Illness as Metaphor' than a substantive work on the AIDS crisis. It provides useful summary of the various metaphors which surround illness and how the stigmatise the ill but fails to deliver a comprehensive analysis of the AIDS crisis and only briefly acknowledges the social dimension of the disease as a 'gay plague.' Unlike Sontag's biographer, Benjamin Mosser, I would not be of the view that this text's failing is its reticence to personalise. Instead, it seemed to me that Sontag did her intellect a disservice by skirting away from the unique nature of the AIDS crisis and the repercussions it would have on art, on politics and on medical ethics.
Profile Image for Clare.
211 reviews2 followers
March 4, 2022
Good for thinking about the societal responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid as "hoax" in our era of disinformation. We've done such a good job of eliminating communicable disease and compartmentalizing our medical system that people have either forgotten how to be afraid of disease or have become unduly frightened of it. We see both types of responses. It's been tough to tread along "the middle way," a balanced and clear-eyed response. Sontag reminds us of that intellectual work, but here, through the lens of the other recent pandemic: AIDS.
Profile Image for Rachel.
354 reviews6 followers
April 25, 2021
I reread Illness as Metaphor before moving on to AIDS and Its Metaphors, and that was the right choice, since AIDS and Its Metaphors builds so much off of Illness as Metaphor, and begins by addressing Sontag's changes in thinking since Illness as Metaphor. AIDS and Its Metaphors is a bit more wide-ranging than Illness, which kept a fairly narrow focus on tuberculosis and cancer. AIDS and Its Metaphors gets more into what pre-disposes a disease to be used metaphorically, and the difference between an epidemic and a plague. 

Reading it during an epidemic added a little bit of extra something -- COVID is referred to almost exclusively as an epidemic, except by people who are being racist, which felt very illustrative of what Sontag meant. My only thing is that I would have liked a little bit more about AIDS specifically, but it was written earlier in the AIDS outbreak, so I guess there wasn't as much to dig into, in the ways people talk about AIDS.
Profile Image for Silvia.
231 reviews11 followers
September 8, 2023
This one seems to wander through topics more than 'Illness and its Metaphors' and it's little harder to follow a central message, but the variety of topics are interesting points within the conversation. Reading this after an epidemic was very interesting, as some of the points lined up perfectly with what I experienced with COVID, though I am curious if any of her thoughts would change or develop in light of living through a global pandemic.

3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Mouska Mousekewitz.
56 reviews2 followers
December 10, 2017
This is one of the most important books I’ve read when it comes to the way we talk about illness. It is also super helpful in looking at how we use illness to talk about other things. I would have rated it 5 stars but I only read it too late when it has lost some of its relevance.
Profile Image for Ewa Ahmad.
13 reviews1 follower
December 14, 2018
I spent my semester this Fall writing an extremely detailed biochemical and microbiological paper on HIV-1. Reading this alongside my science writing bubble was necessary, and I recommend this book to every single person.
Profile Image for JR.
224 reviews6 followers
January 1, 2022
“It is monstrous to attribute meaning, in the sense of moral judgement, to the spread of an infectious disease. But perhaps it is only a little less monstrous to be invited to contemplate death on this horrendous scale with equanimity”
49 reviews1 follower
December 16, 2022
i think i have to stop saying “slay” or “work” or “you killed it” as a compliment😳

love the chesterton joke on 87, love it overall.

but i do think of miller. why do i think of things falling apart? were they ever whole?
Profile Image for Walt Odets.
Author 6 books66 followers
February 10, 2019
It's a wonderful piece of work, and not just about AIDS. It's a book about humanity.
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